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Alaska ferry system could face more budget cuts

KODIAK — The head of the Alaska Marine Highway System says he expects a $5 million cut to the organization's operating budget next year.

The budget will likely drop from $96 million to $91 million for next fiscal year, said Mike Neussl, deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, at a community meeting in Kodiak Wednesday.

Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget, released Wednesday, provides AMHS with about $92.2 million, reported The Kodiak Daily Mirror.

The ferry system has made an estimated $53.5 million in revenue during fiscal year 2015, an increase from the previous year. Operating costs have gone down by about $5.5 million through cutting bars, gift shops, a marketing contract and discounts.

But the ferry system needs to make more cuts as legislative contributions continue to fall.

AMHS has struggled with a declining operating budget of $27 million over the last three years. The budget was at $123.7 million in fiscal year 2013. That figure has dropped to $96.6 million in 2016, the current fiscal year.

The decreasing budget has resulted in reduced ferry service, including the number of service weeks and port calls. Neussl said the number of service weeks fell from 400 in 2013 to 378 in 2015. This year, it dropped to 354.

Public criticism over the ferry system has grown with the reduced service. Neussl said the number of comments he receives when draft schedules for the summer and winter are released has increased significantly. In the past he has only received 25 to 30 comments, but this year's summer schedule brought him 300.

"We didn't get comments like 'Gee, can you move it from this day to this day,'" Neussl said. "We got comments like, 'Your schedule is unacceptable. It's not even meeting our basic needs.'"

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